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Can You Click and Compete?

I was recently asked ‘If I wanted to compete and still use clicker training, how would I ever ride a whole dressage test? I click and treat for every behaviour, which means my horse stops to get his reward.’

The science and theory behind the way to do this can be a bit of a mind-bender concept for some folk, but I will try and explain it here and hope you can wrap your head around why it works.

The concept is based on chaining behaviours together. This is typically used when you have a good sized list of behaviours already established to work with.

We start by teaching, through positive reinforcement, several behaviors – for example, the foundation lessons. Once a behaviour is well understood and has a strong reinforcement history, doing the behaviour becomes pleasant and the act of doing the behaviour actually becomes reinforcing itself. (This has to do with chemicals released in the brain in anticipation of the reward.) Being asked to do these behaviours is a good thing, and very reinforcing to the learner.

You can use this principle to build chains of behaviours. An example might be: when riding, you can ask your horse to walk forward, turn left and then walk to his mat where you would click and reward. If each behaviour has been taught individually, with positive reinforcement, has a strong history of reinforcement and is enjoyed by the horse, then each cue for the next behaviour will reinforce the previous behaviour. (This is where it gets a tad hard to wrap your mind around!) You can arrange these behaviours to make any chain you’d like. If a behaviour of one of the components of the chain starts to deteriorate, spend some time ending on that behaviour or reinforcing it directly, but also see why this behaviour is no longer reinforcing and as well look at the behaviour that proceed and follow it.

So, in answer to the question ‘Can I ride a dressage test and clicker train?’ The answer is, yes if the individual behaviours , and their component parts have been taught with positive reinforcement and have a strong history of reinforcement, there is no reason why you can’t. What usually happens, is people, once they start to play with clicker training, begin to view the relationship and the teaching as more fun or more important than the final goal of ‘competing.’ You and your horse are enjoying doing things together, the same things you would be doing in competition, so then my question to you becomes ‘ Why do I want to compete?’

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